The Reading Room

The Carnival of the Soul in Ray Bradbury’s Tales of the Macabre

“THE OCTOBER COUNTRY …that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…” (Ray Bradbury, The October Country, xiii)
So begins one of Ray Bradbury’s finest collections of tales of the macabre. Well known for his rocket men and his science fiction, his Fahrenheit 451 and his Martian Chronicles, Bradbury was equally prolific as a writer of the macabre, perhaps more so. And, as with his science fiction, he was a master of it. His earliest collection of stories, Dark Carnival, was published by Arkham House, which had been originally founded by August Derleth to collect and republish Lovecraft’s works after his death and had grown from there to publish the works of many of Lovecraft’s friends, as well as promising new writers creating similar tales of weird fiction. This book, Dark Carnival, Bradbury later rewrote, modifying the tales within as he grew in experience as a writer, eventually creating from it his book The October Country, which he dedicated to none other than Derleth himself.
Such connections notwithstanding, Bradbury’s tales of the macabre and the supernatural in The October Country are wholly his own, expressing in gorgeous prose and expert writing his own unique understanding of the macabre. This understanding was not so much a philosophical premise such as Lovecraft’s cosmicism as much as it was a feeling, a spirit which Bradbury could capture and express but never define. It is the feeling of the Midwest autumn, of Halloween, of the strange, inexpressible things found in wandering carnivals or within oneself whilst staring into the autumn night while all others sleep. 
Although other stories of his contain far more of that particularly Midwestern autumnal feeling, such as his excellent novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, few of these are as perfect in their concise expression of Bradbury’s macabre as his short story “The Jar.” Set in the more traditional region for American Gothic horror, the South, it is the story of a southern hick who purchases a jar from a carnival man and takes it home. Within the jar is…well, that’s the point of the tale. Within the jar is anything and everything. It brings eminence and society to the hick, drawing all his neighbors into his house, evening after evening, to sit and smoke and talk…and to ponder the jar. “From the shine of their eyes one could see that each saw something different in the jar, something of the life and the pale life after life, and the life in death and the death in life, each with his story, his cue, his lines, familiar, old but new.” (Ray Bradbury, “The Jar” in The October Country, 113-4) One person sees the child she lost in the swamp, another sees the kitten he drowned, a third, a voodoo monster.
Many different eyes see many different things, and the contemplation each holds reveals more of their inner being than it does anything about the jar’s contents. Such is, Bradbury insinuates, the manner of the macabre. The jar is the horror tale, and we are the slack-jawed hicks beholding it with awe. Witnessing such a strange and eerie thing draws out our autumn thoughts, revealing something of our own character, forcing us to confront an inner darkness. Should we fail in this confrontation, we become autumn people, carnival attractions ourselves, there for the contemplation of others in their turn. Such a fate befalls the wife of the man who first purchased the jar. Such a fate befalls many in Bradbury’s tales, victims of their own fascination with the macabre. But there are those as well in his tales who succeed in the face of this darkness, who gain something new and glorious in their lives from the encounter. Charles Halloway in Something Wicked survives several attempts by the carnival to twist him into its newest attraction. At the beginning of the novel Charles was a lost and unhappy man, quiet, thinking ever of his old age and unfitness for fatherhood. At the end of the novel, though, he gains a renewed youthfulness in his spirit and a restored zest for life. Indeed, it is only by acquiring these things that he is able to ward off the carnival people’s magic and banish them from his hometown. 
Such then is the manner of the macabre, the result of our encounter with our own inner darkness. We will be transformed. What we choose is only whether this be a transformation for the better, or the worse.